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Holiday Travel Oddities

The 5 Creepiest Holiday Traditions in Europe

Many holiday traditions in the U.S. probably seem weird from an outside perspective. For instance, trampling our fellow citizens to get a cheap deal on Black Friday, dragging a tree indoors to decorate, and gathering around in the cold with thousands of other people to watch a silver ball slowly drop a few feet. But some holiday traditions that are celebrated in Europe seem downright creepy. Here are some of the strangest holiday traditions from around Europe.

Krampus, Central Europe

Krampus masked people in graz at a krampus festival  

In case the thought of a stranger (Santa) breaking into your house through your chimney weren’t creepy enough, Austria and other central European countries have given the mythological man a sinister friend—Krampus. Krampus tags along with St. Nicholas, and while St. Nicholas doles out candy to the good kids, Krampus’ job is to punish the naughty ones.

This demonic-looking character beats bad children with birch branches or kidnaps them in his sack and takes them away, never to be seen again.

If you want to experience the true terror of Krampus, watch this movie about him (after the kids are in bed).

Mari Lwyd, Wales

 The gloucestershire morris men dancing outside the subscription rooms, with mari lwyd

Knock, knock. “Who’s there?” A horse skull puppet, and it’s challenging you to a rap battle. This is the standard scene in Wales around the Christmas season, when groups accompany a person dressed up as a horse’s body with a (hopefully) fake skull on top and go door to door asking to come in via a rhyme. The people inside the house must come up with a better rhyme response in order to win. After the battle, the Mari Lwyd (which translates to “gray mare”) and group are allowed inside and given food and drink before they head off to the next door.

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The Yule Cat, Iceland

Huge cat is sitting on the house roof. yule cat.

I hope you’re not trying to roll up to your Christmas celebration in last year’s clothing. If you do, prepare to be eaten by the Yule Cat. Icelandic tradition says the Yule Cat (aka Jólakötturinn, if you’re on a first-name basis with the cat) will eat anyone who hasn’t obtained new clothing by Christmas. Imagining being nibbled at by an adorable kitten for your fashion crimes? Think again: The Yule Cat is a giant beast, one that’s large enough to see into the upper windows of your house (so he can check on your clothing).

Grýla, Iceland

folklore figures on the main street of akureyri, iceland gryla and her husband

In case the Yule Cat wasn’t terrifying enough, Icelanders also have to contend with Grýla, the Christmas witch. According to legends, Grýla lives up in the mountains, and her hobbies include taking advantage of the dark winter days to show up in villages and steal naughty children.

It’s not just children who should fear the Christmas witch—she allegedly also ate her husband when she got bored with him.

Grýla has been around since the 1300s, but according to Terry Gunnell, the head of the Folkloristics Department at the University of Iceland, she’s still out there living her best life in the mountains. Gunnell told the Iceland Monitor, “There’s a rumor concerning Grýla, that she’s dead and has stopped eating children. I think that’s nonsense, and that she’s living a great life in the mountains still eating her human sushi.”

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Perchta, Germany and Austria

 local carnival parade with traditional wooden masks also known as swabian-alemannic fastnacht. - image

In America, if you’re bad, Santa brings you a lump of coal. In Germany and Austria, though, things get more punitive.  If you misbehave, Perchta, a two-faced witch, will put on her terrifying visage and slit open your stomach, stealing your organs and filling your belly with rocks and straw. If you’re good, she’ll put on her nice face and leave you a small silver coin and your organs intact.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

By Caroline Morse Teel

Unfortunately for her bank account, Principal Editor Caroline Morse Teel is powerless to resist a good flight deal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

Caroline joined Boston-based SmarterTravel in 2011 after living in Ireland, London, and Manhattan. She's traveled to all seven continents, jumped out of planes, and bungeed off bridges in the pursuit of a good story. She loves exploring off-the-beaten path destinations, anything outdoorsy, and all things adventure.

Her stories have also appeared online at USA Today, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Yahoo, Boston.com, TripAdvisor, Buzzfeed, Jetsetter, Oyster, Airfarewatchdog, and others.

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E-mail her at cmorse@smartertravel.com.

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